Which players are poised to make an impact at Mission Hills
Golf’s first major of the year promises to showcase the talent of some of the best players in the world when they gather in Rancho Mirage for the 50th Edition of the ANA Inspiration hosted at Mission Hills. Players like the Korda sisters, reigning US Women’s Open champion – A. Lim Kim, Lexi Thompson, Minjee Lee, Brooke Henderson and Korean stars Sei Young Kim and In Gee Chun will be on full competitive display as they chase a major championship.
As we preview some of the players and their potential impact on the tournament, we have included some comments and observations from Sophie Walker, a regular guest on our podcast show – “We’re Talking Golf”. Sophie is a professional player formerly on the Ladies European Tour (the “LET”), and now a golf analyst with both Sky Sports and BBC Five Live.
So, let’s get right to it.
Nelly Korda (United States)
Age – 22 Rolex Rank – 3
4 LPGA Victories (No Majors)
In the 2020 ANA Championship, Nelly Korda was on the cusp of winning her first ever major title, needing only a birdie on the reachable Par 5 – 18th hole to seal victory. A slightly errant tee shot that found the first cut of the rough meant that reaching the green in two shots was no longer an option. Instead, Korda made par, tying her with playing partner, Brooke Henderson, who made birdie on 18 and with Mirim Lee who defied the odds and recorded a -2 under eagle on 18. Lee would win on the first playoff hole for an improbable victory.
As we enter the 2021 edition of the ANA, it would be fitting to suggest that Korda has some unfinished business to attend to. She enters this year’s edition having already won at the Gainbridge LPGA event held earlier in Orlando. She comes into the event having finished the Kia Classic sharing 10th spot along with Henderson. Korda has a strong game, consistently long and straight with her driver, with an iron game that gives her plenty of birdie opportunities. And, with improved putting, she is now contending for championships on a more regular basis.
She finished the KIA Classic with a scoring average of 69.06 for the year, good for 3rd overall, and with 75 – birdies, tops on the LPGA. Given the steady nature of her play, familiarity with Mission Hills and the recent experiencing of being able to play well at the ANA, Korda should be a player to watch not only through the week, but If she putts well throughout, she could very well be the player that leaps into Poppies Pond on Sunday.
Sei Young Kim (South Korea)
Age – 28 , Rolex Rank – 2
12 LPGA wins ( 1 – major )
Last season’s Rolex Player of the Year, Sei Young Kim comes into this major as one of the favourites. She is coming off of a “missed cut” at the Kia Classic, but Kim’s talent is undeniable, and she has enough confidence to know that she can bounce back and win the following week. She has all of the requisite tools to win at Mission Hills – a terrific iron game (in 2020, she finished 1st in Greens in Regulation), a solid putting game (finishing 2020 with a 1.73 putts per GIR) along with plenty of power off the tee box.
“this is a big time player, isn't it? . . . you play for millions of dollars . . . and it just doesn't seem to faze her, she really enjoys putting herself under pressure situations. Whereas I do think a lot of players are less comfortable in those situations you look in the men's games someone like Tony Finau. Now you can see him, he tightens up and has the pressure of winning. Whereas this player is somebody that just almost seems to get better, the more in the fight that she is, it's like, get me there. And I'm even more comfortable. When you talk about not wanting to make mistakes, I feel like she's a little bit braver as well – she will go for that bit more and be a little bit kind of carefree if it comes off or not. She's sensible, and in the most part of her game, but if you need to pull off a shot, when it counts, she will go for it. Like if she needs to hit it onto the 18th green in two and she's in between (clubs), you know, she's gonna step up and take the ‘shirt off’. And the chances are, she's probably going to pull it off. And that was kind of like about her.”
Lexi Thompson (United States)
Age – 26, Rolex Rank – 9
11 LPGA wins ( 1 – major)
Lexi is coming off a bit of a down year in 2020 – a “down year” at least by the lofty standards that she has achieved in the past with her last win coming in 2019’s ShopRite Classic. With Thompson, she remains a competitive player and is still within the Top-10 of the world rankings; a testament to her solid play. Her 2021 season is off to a fairly good start as well, having finished with a share of second place twice in four events. With Lexi, the strength of her game is her ball striking, whether it be from the tee box and driver to an iron and attacking the flags. Her length and strong approach game means that she has plenty of opportunities to make birdies and in 2021, she is second on tour for birdies (66) and is 5th on tour for her scoring average.
Having won the ANA previously in 2014 and nearly winning in 2016 after losing in a playoff, Lexi is a serious contender at Mission Hills. If she can keep putting well, her driving and iron game will give her plenty of looks at birdies, and that could mean another jump into the pond on Sunday.
Minjee Lee (Australia)
Age – 24, Rolex Rank – 10,
5 LPGA victories ( no majors)
A perennial contender at most major championships, Minjee Lee has just not been able to put together four low rounds to win a major. She has been a consistently good player on tour as her 5 – victories on tour can attest to. A solid player, there doesn’t appear to be any significant weak area of her game. She is solid with her driving, her iron game consistently ranks above average in Greens in Regulation, and her putting has been very good (both in terms of “putts per GIR” and in her “putting average” ). She also one of the best bunker players on tour, having maintained a “sand save” percentage above 50% since 2017. That means she more often saves par than she makes bogies – that is impressive play.
The margin of difference between the winners and contenders in majors is often a little bit of good fortune – a long eagle putt or “holing out” from the fairway, making several long-distance putts, or a “hole in one”. It’s this little bit of fortune that seems to appear at a key moment that propels a player on to victory. As for Minjee, she is coming off of a tie for 5th place at the KIA Classic where she recorded Two -2 Eagles, an unlikely occurrence in a single tournament. Perhaps that is the extra boost in confidence that will help her go on to greater success at the ANA.
Minjee is experienced with the ANA Inspiration, having played it now for several years. Her best finish was a T3 in 2017 and in last year’s edition, she finished with a share of 7th place. If Minjee can get off to a good start on Thursday, she could ride her momentum all the way through to Sunday.
Inbee Park (South Korea)
Age – 32, Rolex Rank – 4
21 LPGA wins ( 7 – majors, including 2012 Evian Masters)
“Queen Bee” as Inbee Park is often referred to, doesn’t dazzle spectators with tremendous length off the tee box, nor does she hit towering high iron shots to the green. What she does probably better than most though, is that she doesn’t beat herself. She manages the course well, and she knows how to set herself up for scoring opportunities. She’s also recognized as one of the best putters on tour, consistently at the top or near the top in putting categories such as “putts / GIR” or with her “putting average”. And that has made her a formidable contender in major championships – events which often set up to reward course management and strategic shotmaking to attack the hole on fast and firm greens.
She is coming off of a victory at the KIA Classic where she won by a comfortable 5-shot margin in her first event of 2021. In her interview afterwards, she said that she was motivated not by trying to surpass Se Ri Pak’s LPGA win total, but to qualify for the Olympics in Tokyo, where she is the defending Gold Medallist, “I’m trying to qualify myself for the Olympics and its not as easy as winning a tournament, you have to play well for the four years after the Olympics are done (to requalify).”
Regarding the ANA, Inbee went on to say that she “would love to jump into Poppies Pond”. Having won at the course previously and with a wealth of experience as a major champion, a motivated Inbee Park will be a formidable contender. If you’re playing in fantasy pools or such, you can look to Inbee as a safe pick.
Part Three coming up . . .
More contenders for victory on Sunday and a few players to keep watch for your fantasy pools.